Once there was a Pentarchy.


The Readings for the Feast of St Matthias, Apostle
Monday in the 7th Week of Easter (B2)

    Et dederunt sortes eis, et cecidit sors super Mathiam, et annumeratus est cum undecim Apostolis.

    And they gave them lots, and the lot fell upon Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. 

    I’ve worked for churches, off and on, for a lot of the last 35 years. Add to that non-profits and higher education, and I’d say that easily 60-75% of my job time has been in this world which is a veritable banana split of politics, ego, and turf wars. The 6 months I spent at the Benedictine monastery in Colorado are just the double fudge sauce on this sundae of doom. Today’s reading from Acts calls to mind an odd experience in the middle of all that. 

    A non-traditional congregation was having its annual elections for their governing body (called the Parish Council or Vestry). There was an odd tradition in this community of only bringing one group of candidates forward, by a process of interviews, and then asking the community to vote yes on the slate. You might realize how non-democratic this is. Oddly they did not. It was a way to self-perpetuate whilst appearing to adhere to traditional forms of governance. It essentially ensured that people of the wrong sort would not get elected to office to challenge community norms. 

    My memory does not fully hold a clear vision of how this event happened, but at this council meeting there were two candidates for a job. One was the Approved Nominee. The other was one who was a newbie and an unknown quantity. The team, if memory serves, tried to convince one or the other to step down. But in the end it was coming to a vote. Agent Provocateur that I am, I moved that rather than vote we decide by lot. The official candidate was unimpressed with this suggestion although the newbie didn’t care one way or the other. The community, by majority vote, accepted my motion. The lot fell to the newbie. The official candidate, having been promised the job, remained unimpressed.

    Although there were lots of energies and personalities involved, the sheer politics of the event sucked. Aristotle said man is a political animal, but  human nature is what we’re here to rise above. So… how to deal with Politics in the Church? 

    To be clear, I’m not talking about Church involvement in secular political actions. I think most political choices can be viewed through a lens of morality and I’m thankful that this Pope (and, indeed, all the Popes) have taken steps to guide us towards moral choices in the secular realm. (Admittedly, some Popes did that by modeling bad behavior…) I’m talking about the intrusion of what St Paul calls “factions” in the Church: the taking of sides, I am for Paul, I am for Apollos, etc. This could be read to include the things that are bringing about the demise of the Protestant mainline, but I’m sticking with things like: Orthodox bishops withholding Ordinations until they get a few “donations”, or Catholic bishops asking for priests to be a little more quiet around the diocese for being a bit too famous on the internets, or Catholic priests taking their entire congregations into schism and apostasy because the Bishop is too traditional; priests of any denomination being able to look the other way for wealthier parishioners. 

    All the usual things. I mention none of this for scandal: because it goes on all the time. I’m asking what to do about it. And I don’t mean how to stop it.

    All this week leading up to Pentecost, I think this is a crucial question. How is the Church governed.The first apostles opted for drawing lots. If you’ve ever seen the Shoes of the Fisherman, you’ll know that getting a new Pope involves an odd mix of politics and inspiration…

    So what do you do about it? Run around yelling, “This can’t be the Church?” Toss in the towel and say, “Wow.” I’m somewhere in the middle, to be honest, because I think God’s funny and lets us run amok, and this is how He’s decided to run the Church. This is a mark of divine providence, as far as I’m concerned: because most human institutions last about as long as a tube of toothpaste. 

    The Church, however, can side with soon-to-be-dead political movements, the wrong ethnic identities, financially risky property deals, bad choices in clergy, declining populations (if you think “the Nones” are bad, try the Black Plague), poorly chosen expansion polices, and even egregiously sinful Popes, and yet the Church is still here. Rome, Attila, the Ottomans, the English, the French, the Germans, the Nazis, the Soviets, and quite a few others have all tried to get rid of the Church. Yet, the Church is still here. I take quite a bit of comfort in that. All-too-human politics happening in an all-too-human Church seems the least of our worries.

    Author: Huw Raphael

    A Dominican Tertiary living in San Francisco, CA. He is almost 59. He feeds the homeless as a parochial almoner and is studying to be a Roman Catholic Deacon. He is learning modern Israeli Hebrew and enjoys cooking, keto, cats, long urban hikes, and SF Beer Week.

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